Hot controversy on the grill in Carmel and hot Big Sur tickets.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
There are plenty of intriguing story lines circling a skirmish over a proposed eatery-by-the-sea. Carmel’s premiere hotelier-restaurateur wants to extend his impressive record of new businesses with a concept not seen around here. Opposing sides both evoke our current economic malaise as a reason to see things their way. And some critics feel it could corrupt the very character of Carmel itself.
Still, all that poignant plot-thickening doesn’t offer as much entertainment value as the irony at its core: That the name of the gourmet burger joint David Fink would love to put in at Carmel Plaza, though it would require a variance from current rules, is slated to be called “What’s Your Beef?”
Opponents’ beef is that the L’Auberge/Cantinetta Luca owner’s new 79-seater, with its overhead menu, walk-up counter and absence of table service, breaks rules that are there for a reason. (In Carmel, there are two types of eateries. “Specialty” restaurants – like bakeries and coffee shops – can't have over-the-counter meals make up more than 10 percent of sales. “Full-line” restaurants must maintain a wait staff, table service and menus. Carmel Belle would be the lucky exception, thanks to a use permit that’s grandfathered in.)
Twelve-year City Council veteran and Carmel Residents Association President Barbara Livingston and local marketing consultant Preston Kincaid are two of the critics flagging the new idea, and deploying the magic label “fast food.”
“Our village is known for our full-line restaurants,” Livingston says. “This would encourage other restaurants to rid themselves of expensive wait staff and put a lot of people out of work.”
Mundaka owner Gabe Georis sees things differently. “I’m pro-business,” he says. “It’s good for all of us.”
Kincaid seemed unsurprised by that take from a restaurant owner. (I didn't ID which owner said it.)
“A lot of restaurants are pro-this,” Kincaid says. “They see dollar signs. If they can implement the same business model, customers can eat and go, have a quicker experience, and owners make a lot more money. Unfortunately they’re going to lose the spirit of Carmel. What’s the toll gonna be 10 years from now?”
One thing that’s certainly not a source of controversy is Fink’s ability to pull off something nice. When he appeared before the city’s Planning Commission Aug. 10, when they OK’d the variance (before City Council flagged it for further consideration and possible veto), supporters came out in force talking tax revenues, job creation and entrepreneurial creativity.
"This isn't fast food," Carmel Chamber of Commerce Chief Monta Potter said, referring to a trial menu with a $7.95 burger and a Meyer lemon-lavender seasonal soda.
As one commissioner said, "Staff is not concerned that this is going to take on appearance of a fast food restaurant."
"I love being in business here," Fink said. "We're creating jobs… and heavily invested in Carmel by the Sea."
Opponents also acknowledge, in flattering language, how great Fink’s been for the area. What critics also add, though: This generates a potent precedent.
“I don’t doubt Fink would put together a top-notch place,” Kincaid says. “And I don’t usually entertain slippery slope concepts, but this is one. If they let Fink do it and not others, the council is one step away from getting sued. And others won’t do it as well as Fink.”
One interesting side note: Kincaid works with Carmel restaurateur Rich Pepe (Little Napoli, Vesuvio), among others, which begs the question: Could this be a client-driven publicity play to throw off the competition? No way, contends Kincaid – Pepe likes the idea a lot more than Kincaid himself does, because Pepe stands to advance his own family of food businesses, one of which operates specialty restaurant permits.
“I wouldn’t say I’m for it – [but] I’m cool with it,” Pepe says. “I just want clarity from the commission.”
A PR pointman splitting with his client over restaurant rules? Beef over a place called What’s Your Beef? Further proof that fact beats fiction, particularly in a place called Carmel.
The City Council considers the controversy this week at its Tuesday (Sept. 13) meeting.
Even though tickets just went on sale a week ago today, Big Sur Food & Wine has already sold out two of its events (the rambling, private-residence-wandering Magical Mystery Tour and Hiking With Stemware on the Rancho Rico/Chappellet property), thanks in part to calls coming from North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Arizona.
“It just goes to show that despite the downturn, there are still people who wish to travel for unique experiences amongst the company of friends, old and new, and to see Big Sur in a light that is exceptionally elusive, especially when you’re talking about being on rare, private properties,” BSF&W big cheese Toby Rowland says. “I actually have a feeling that we could expand this event, somehow by almost double, and we’d still have a sell-out! Trouble is, so few rooms here are available.” 869-1341, www.bigsurfoodandwine.org.